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Sunday 31 August 2014

Shane Coleman: McGuinness isn't alone in failures of judgment

Shane Coleman

Published 11/06/2013 | 17:00

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John McGuinness: hit by controversy
John McGuinness: hit by controversy

THEY still don't get it in Leinster House. It is five years since the economy fell off a cliff. Yet the public would be forgiven for thinking little has changed in the political bubble on Kildare Street.

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The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is the body with the specific remit of keeping a beady eye on state spending. Yet yesterday, its chairman, John McGuinness, tried to argue there were times when the taxpayer should pay for ministerial spouses to go on trade missions.

It's just the latest hit to Mr McGuinness's credibility following a series of revelations in the Irish Independent. First came the controversy over the renovation of his ministerial office. Then it emerged that while he was junior minister, his son was paid €30,800 overtime – on top of his €42,000 salary – in one year for his role as personal secretary to Mr McGuinness.

And yesterday, this newspaper revealed correspondence, also from his time as a minister, showing he tried to bring his wife with him on foreign trips.

Mr McGuinness compounded his difficulties in subsequent radio interviews. Normally a savvy operator, the Kilkenny man came across as unusually out-of-touch. He stressed it was always his intention to pay for his wife to travel with him on ministerial duty. But he continued to insist there were cases, for health, business or family reasons, when the State should pay for spouses to travel with a minister on state business.

Asked by the interviewer if the State – an effectively bankrupt state, let's not forget – could afford this, Mr McGuinness's response was: "Can we afford not to do it?" One can only imagine what listeners who had lost jobs or had their welfare payments cut made of the response.

Mr McGuinness has certainly shown poor judgment. But are calls for his resignation really justified? After all, Mr McGuinness's wife didn't travel at the taxpayers' expense. Is expressing an opinion – even one that most would disagree with – really a resigning issue?

But the intervention of the Taoiseach yesterday has certainly increased the pressure on him.

Claiming it "smacks of traces of the abuse and arrogance" of the previous "14 years of mis-management", Enda Kenny lobbed the ball firmly into Micheal Martin's court. It was an issue for the Fianna Fail leader to "reflect on", he said.

Speaking from Rome, Mr Kenny couldn't resist citing the old saying about Caesar's wife being above reproach, concluding: "This is about the Public Accounts Committee, it's a matter of credibility in respect of politics and accountability."

But it's also legitimate to ask about the 'credibility' and 'accountability' of the Coalition itself. Just a few days ago, the Government announced the appointment of former Fine Gael adviser Sean Donlon to a €172,000-a-year job in Europe.

Fine Gael and Labour came to power promising to bring an end to political patronage for state jobs. But there is precious little evidence of it happening.

Nobody doubts Mr Donlon's qualifications to take up the position on the board of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). He is highly qualified.

That, though, is not the point. The EBRD post is one of the plum jobs in any government's gift and has traditionally gone to party stalwarts.

But this Government likes to tell us it is different. It had a chance to send out a signal. It could have appointed a well-qualified individual without any party affiliations. Instead, it opted for a well-qualified individual who happens to have been special adviser to John Bruton when he was Taoiseach, and Finance Minister Michael Noonan when he was Fine Gael leader.

It's no reflection on Mr Donlon – who no doubt will do a fine job. But it is a reflection on Fine Gael and Labour. When it comes to state appointments, nothing has changed.

Mr McGuinness stands guilty of failing to live up the high standards he has demanded of others. But is he alone in that regard?

Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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